It was just a year ago that Covid-19 became big news in the United States and changed our lives. Soon we were wearing masks everywhere and trying to put at least six feet of distance between ourselves and anyone else. Public gatherings were forbidden. We were told to stay home, stay in, stay away from other people.
Gradually we adjusted to the restrictions. We followed the rules; we were as careful as we could manage to be. Our health and well-being depended on it. But it has taken a toll on us, particularly on those who live alone. One of the worst side effects of Covid-19 is isolation.
Being in one’s house or apartment day after day, feeling confined and cut off from life on the other side of the door, can leave a person restless and depressed. Feeling safe, or safer than one would be outdoors, is some consolation, but it doesn’t compensate for the loss of contact with other people and with the happenings of daily life.
Isolation is painful and hard to bear. At this time of year, more than any other, those of us who struggle with it can put it to good use. Especially in Lent, we can remember that, ironic though it sounds, we are not alone in being isolated. Christ endured isolation, too, especially as he drew closer to his ultimate aloneness on the cross.
The isolation he endured in his Passion began in Gethsemane, where he went with his Apostles after the Last Supper. In the Gospel of Mark—which we are reading at Mass this liturgical year—Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and told them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch” (Mk 14:34). He went a bit farther and “fell to the ground and prayed” to his Father to be delivered from the ordeal to come. When he returned to the three he had chosen, he found them asleep. At what was likely the darkest moment he had experienced in his life, his closest friends had not shared his pain, had not helped him, through prayer, to bear the fear and dread that assailed him. They had just participated in the first Eucharist and received the command of Jesus to celebrate it themselves, yet they could not support him when he needed them most.
Aggrieved, he asked them, “Could you not keep watch for one hour?”
That moment in Gethsemane seems to me one of the most agonizing for Christ. His friends were there, yet they were absent. How alone he must have felt, and how isolated, afflicted not only by fear of the agony that lay ahead, but also by the seeming indifference of those to whom he was closest.
Isolation was Christ’s only companion throughout his Passion: When he stood before Pilate, when he was scourged, when the Roman soldiers tortured him with blows and spitting and the crown of thorns that they pressed onto his head. As he hung on the cross, the people standing by him included the two people he was closest to: Mary, his mother, and John, the “beloved disciple” who had been beside him at the Last Supper. That must have comforted him, but Christ alone bore that unimaginable suffering and degradation. One of his agonized cries from the cross—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”—reveals that he felt forsaken even by his Father, to whom he constantly had drawn close in prayer.
I have a holy card with a quote on it that strikes me powerfully every time I read it. The words are from Bishop Edward J. Galvin, founder of the Missionary Society of St. Columban and first Bishop of Hanyang, China: “You will never put your foot down on any part of the road of suffering but you will find His footprints there before you.”
As difficult as these times are, we can take comfort from remembering—especially in Lent—that when we are alone, we have a special share in the agonizing isolation that Christ felt as he persevered in the work of winning our salvation.